How to write the perfect cover letter, according to experts

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Cover letters might seem quaint in an era when you're almost always applying for jobs online — and the first reader of your application may be a computer scanning your resume for keywords. But in reality, introductory messages or emails are a lot more important than you may realize.

Done right, your cover letter can be the factor that makes or breaks you during the interview-selection process. "It's an opportunity to stand out", Brooklyn Resume Studio's Dana Leavy-Detrick, said in a phone interview.

Cover letters personalize your application, showcase your writing skills and demonstrate that you are more than the sum of accomplishments chronicled on your resume. Rule number one: Don't be boring. It's "your first and best chance at hooking your reader," Caroline Ceniza-Levine, career expert at SixFigureStart, told Mic by email. So make it count.

Your cover letter also needs to answer four essential questions, as Stanford Business School explains:

1. Why you are interested in the position?
2. What are your qualifications?
3. Why would you be a good fit in the company?
4. Most importantly, what value you would add?

Not sure exactly how to start? You can translate these items into a brief, four-paragraph cover letter, as follows:

1. Break the ice

The introductory paragraph, like the conclusion, should be brief. Start with "Hello" or "Dear," followed by the person's first name. "Having an actual name is the ideal scenario, so that you can personalize the letter," Leavy-Detrick said.

If you work in a more formal industry, or the hiring contact is listed with the honorific Mr., Ms. or Mrs. in front of their name, go ahead and use that followed by their last name. If you don't have a name, play it safe and write "Dear Hiring Manager" or just "Hello" — though finding a real person is always best, even if it requires a little search over Google or LinkedIn, or an introduction by a mutual friend. Definitely avoid "Dear Sir or Madam" or "To Whom It May Concern," as both have a more antiquated feel.

Then start strong with the most impactful information, which should be a one- or two-sentence summary of the position you are applying for and why you're uniquely qualified. Here's an example:

Dear Jane,

I am excited to apply for the role of Senior Recruiter at Your Business Inc., after being referred to the opening by my friend and former colleague CTO John Smith. With three years of human resources consulting experience — and advanced training in organizational development, and leadership coaching — I believe I can bring value to the position by identifying and bringing in top talent, and helping to train other recruiting staff to hire and retain great employees.

Not too hard, right?

2. Next, brag a little — the right way

In the second paragraph, you want to talk about your qualifications. Don't be bashful — but do supply substantive evidence to support your assertions. If you mentioned that you're an "award-winning" manager, state what award you won and why you won it. Here's an excerpt from a real cover letter posted on Alison Green's Ask a Manager blog:

My greatest achievement was the document execution escalation procedure I created, which was used by our department. One of my supervisors gave me the moniker of “escalation guru” due to my tenacity in getting affidavits back on time.

"It works because it’s so customized to the writer," Green noted about the sample cover letter.

Another trick is to use bullet points to highlight key qualifications and accomplishments. LiveCareer recommends a structure like the following:

What makes me different from other applicants?

I conceived and implemented a new training program now used by all 250 of Pretty Good Company Inc's employees
• My excellent rapport with clients and fellow employees contributed to my promotion in 6 months at Not Bad Company Inc — a company record
I work well under pressure, having successfully written a comprehensive health systems training manual in 3 weeks, well ahead of schedule

Don't try to sound like anyone else. Be distinctive, and you'll be much more likely to get called in for an interview. Humor can work, as you should show off your personality — but don't make it your go-to move. When in doubt, run it by a friend to see if it sounds forced... or worse: not actually funny.

3. Prove you're the perfect match

The third paragraph is where you show that you've actually read the job description carefully and can explain in greater depth what you would plan to do once you've got the job. You'll also want to cite a specific example of something the company has done or is doing that attracted you to them and the position. For example:

I believe these skills and experiences will make me an asset to Great Company Inc, especially as it looks to push into the health care space. The Senior Health Trainer role meets my objectives of growing and developing as a health care training expert, a niche I have been cultivating in my last two roles at Pretty Good Company Inc and Not Bad Company Inc.

You can also show that you understand the company well by researching interesting projects they've been involved in, or reviewing press mentions to see where they are in the industry. "Go the extra mile and find a unique detail that you can connect back to your experience," Leavy-Detrick said.

For example:

I recently read in Hacker News that Spotify is partnering with global digital rights agency Merlin to ensure that more independent musicians are represented on Spotify's platform. As a long-time musician myself, I am especially drawn to the idea of working with emerging artists to better connect them with both their core fans and new listeners. 

4. End with an "action phrase"

You need to give the hiring manager a reason to get back to you, so end with something like, "I look forward to your response" or "I look forward to speaking with you further about my background and qualifications," Leavy-Detrick recommended. And make sure to conclude with a sincere "thank you" or "thank you so much" — to further show your gratitude and interest.

Lastly, be sure to provide all relevant contact information like your email address and phone number. You need not link to your LinkedIn page, but you should definitely have it up to date when you're applying, since many recruiters check them when reviewing applications.

Then give the letter one last read for typos before hitting the send button.

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